Can Air Sensors One Day Detect COVID-19? IEEE experts share insights

As employers around the world begin to explore how to safely return employees to workplace environments, air ventilation systems and their potential role in airborne virus spread are starting to come into question. We wondered if air sensor technology might have the ability to help with virus detection.

Air sensors in ventilation systems currently cannot detect COVID-19. But it is possible that one day this technology may be augmented to help us understand and monitor diseases and illnesses.

We asked half a dozen IEEE Impact Creators for their expert perspectives on the possibility of such technology assisting in the fight against this virus, and how our workplaces may be affected by COVID-19.

  1. Sensors Help Detect Air Pollution— Ramalatha Marimuthu, IEEE Senior Member

“Sensors can help us identify air pollution, which is very difficult for the human senses to detect. There are numerous sensors for measuring air quality, and identifying the contaminants is the next step. Sensors in a room can record the quality of the air as well as the quantity of movement of air to detect whether proper ventilation is available. It is also possible to detect room temperature, humidity and other parameters, which can help in identifying the personal comfort of the people in the room.”  

  1. New Buildings And Renovations Will Be Affected— Artur Ziviani, IEEE Senior Member

“It is likely that sensors for the specific purpose of evaluating ventilation conditions of an environment should be developed. Nevertheless, this should also impact the architecture of new buildings or the renovation of old buildings, in particular, if new regulations start appearing to ensure a certain level of ventilation at different places.”

  1. Bioaerosols Are Complex— Raul Colcher, IEEE Life Senior Member

“Although experts don’t seem to agree on whether COVID-19 is airborne or not (except for very specific circumstances, such as when intubating an infected patient), the issue is still relevant, not only for this one, but also for inevitable future epidemics. It would fall into the more general question of detecting ‘bioaerosols’. There are devices capable of capturing the particles of mucus or saliva coming out of someone’s mouth. However, the question of establishing in real-time whether they contain viruses, let alone detecting the presence of a specific virus, is much more complex. In addition, there are other unknowns: for example, what is the minimum dose of infection (the amount of particles that would be necessary to breathe and, consequently, the exposure time so that there is a significant probability of infection), and how far can droplets travel? Such parameters may vary widely for different viruses, probably making it difficult to precisely characterize what ‘good ventilation’ would mean in general.”

  1. It’s Going To Take More Technology Than Air Sensors— André Leon Gradvohl, IEEE Senior Member

“Sensors can pick up different signals. In addition to temperature, pressure and humidity, they can also obtain concentrations of gases and particulate materials, among others. The software, which controls the sensors that capture these signals, can assess conditions to interfere with the environment the sensors are in. In this way, the sensors can provide information to software that controls other devices to redirect air flows and thus decrease the concentration of gases or particulate matter. The analysis of this data obtained in real-time by the sensors and the almost immediate action of the actuators – software-controlled – requires reasonable processing power. Not only to process data quickly, but also to evaluate the results of decision making.”

  1. Filters Might Help— Anderson Maciel, IEEE Member

“The best action in this domain seems to be the use of filters. Several ultraviolet light or ozone-based filters that kill viruses and bacteria have existed for years. The technology to detect viruses in the air, as far as I know, does not exist. It also seems that there is no consensus on how long a virus can remain active and infectious in the air.”

  1. Detection Will Be Needed For Recycled Air— Paul Kostek, IEEE Senior Member

“Expect to see sensors installed by air vents in buildings to measure air flow and provide feedback on the need to increase or decrease flow. Closed loop systems that recycle air will also need sensors to monitor the air quality and ensure pollutants or airborne viruses are not spreading.”  

  1. Sensors Keep Us On Top Of Air Maintenance— Tom Coughlin, IEEE Fellow

“Air flow sensors can help. Also, sensors that can detect air quality in the ventilation system can help. Sensors may also be used to determine that dangerous conditions exist, or that may encourage fungal or bacterial growth. Sensors can also determine the effectiveness of air filters and alert maintenance folks when they need changing.”

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